Infinite Hope: 6 Books about Martin Luther King, Jr.

"Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that." Martin Luther King, Jr. quote on clouds and sun photograph.
Photo courtesy BK on Flickr used under CC License.

This past Monday was Martin Luther King, Jr. Day; a day set aside to honor his life and his amazing contributions to our society. Though he was killed nearly fifty years ago, King’s teachings on social justice and civil rights and his philosophy of non-violence continue to inspire and instruct us today as we work continuously towards achieving equal rights for all. Though we all know who King was, many of us only know the most basic facts about his life and accomplishments. To honor his legacy, the library offers this list highlighting some of the many books available that can help people further explore the life of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Parting the Waters book coverParting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63 by Taylor Branch

In this Pulitzer Prize winning book, Branch chronicles not just Martin Luther King, Jr.’s rise to prominence, but also the turmoil of the American nation during the first stirrings of the Civil Rights movement. Following the key players of the time and the intersections and consequences of their actions and beliefs, Branch sets out not only to chronicle the events of a tumultuous period in history, but also to explain and illuminate how all of these events and people came together to create a watershed moment of change in American history. Vast in scope, covering the biography, history, and sociology of an era, this is just the first of three volumes covering the American sociopolitical landscape during the years of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s activity, the next volumes being Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963-65 and At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-68.

Behind the Dream book coverBehind the Dream: The Making of the Speech that Transformed a Nation by Clarence B. Jones

Behind the Dream presents a backstage look at the weeks leading up to Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic speech as told by Jones, one of the co-writers of the “I Have a Dream” speech. Jones traveled on the road with King, collaborating in his speech writing and acting as a confidante during his travels. This book is an in-depth examination of one of the most important speeches in modern history and the events, ideas, and people that shaped its creation. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech changed the face of the civil rights movement, inspired countless people, and cemented King as one of the great orators of all time.

The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. book coverThe Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. by Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King, Jr. scholar and historian Claybourne Carson compiled archival materials from King’s life to create a posthumous autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. Beginning with his childhood and moving through his time in seminary and his beginnings as a leader of the civil rights movement during the Montgomery bus boycott, The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. presents a comprehensive portrait of a remarkable man. This work touches on all of his most well-known accomplishments as a civil rights leader including the march in Selma, his Dream speech, and being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, as well as detailing his relationships with the most prominent figures of the time including Malcolm X, the Kennedy brothers, and LBJ, and presents the story of his life in his own words.

A Testament of Hope book coverA Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr. by Martin Luther King, Jr.

A Testament of Hope showcases many of the most important pieces of work created by Martin Luther King, Jr. Here are collected his speeches, reflections, and interviews on a variety of different topics from black nationalism to social policy, from ethics to integration. Often King is thought of as purely a civil rights leader, which, while  a huge focus for him and a place where he made extremely important contributions, was really only one facet of the philosophy and ideology that he was developing. This collection of his writings illuminates the breadth of his ideas and teachings.

Hellhound on His Trail book coverHellhound on His Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the International Hunt for His Assassin by Hampton Sides

In 1967 James Earl Ray, a thief and a conman as well as an inmate at the Missouri State Penitentiary escaped from prison and was inspired to action by George Wallace’s racist presidential campaign. This is the man who one year later would murder Martin Luther King, Jr. at the Lorraine Motel. Sides follows the actions of Ray as he stalks King as well as King’s involvement with the strike of the black sanitation workers in Memphis and his struggles to direct the movement away from violence. The paths of both men converge on that fateful day in Memphis when Ray assassinated King and sparked one of the largest manhunts in US history. Led by Hoover’s FBI, who for years had actually dogged King’s actions, the search spread all over America and even to Portugal and England. Sides tracks this story in detail creating a non-fiction thriller centered around Martin Luther King, Jr. and the man who killed him.

Death of a King book coverDeath of a King: The Real Story of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Final Year by Tavis Smiley

Though his shocking and horrifying assassination is well remembered, few people make mention of much of King’s life in his final year as he dealt with denunciations in the press, rejection from the president, and dismissal by black middle-class Americans. In Death of a King Smiley examines in detail the events of King’s final year before his death and the obstacles and triumphs that he encountered during that time. This is a look at a little seen side of King and the personal and professional struggles that he encountered trying to be a leader in a country torn apart by hatred and inequality.